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Tampa Bay Rays All-Star Evan Longoria has developed into team's biggest national star

ST. PETERSBURG

There are reasons Evan Longoria was challenging Yankees star Derek Jeter as the leading American League All-Star with more than 4 million votes, is close to sealing a couple of big-time national marketing deals, is all over the covers of national magazines, becoming the face not only of the Rays but one of Major League Baseball's youngest and brightest. He's got game, no doubt. Good looks, charisma and humility. Fortuitous timing, arriving — not necessarily coincidentally — as the Rays went from chumps to champs, from obscurity to center stage. And don't forget the pretty and massively popular model/TV star with whom he shares a last name. As Longoria, 23, heads to his second All-Star Game in two seasons, he does so at a level of popularity and celebrity no Tampa Bay player has ever reached.

"It's unprecedented," team president Matt Silverman said. "And what's crazy is that he's just getting started."

Longoria's talent is the given in the discussion, evidenced by his .278 average, 44 homers, 151 RBIs and scroll of highlight plays in his first 204 major-league games. Certainly he timed it well, getting tremendous exposure as the Rays made their shocking run to the World Series and winning top AL rookie honors.

The Rays have had good young players, but Longoria's Q-rating has soared beyond anything any other, such as three-time All-Star Carl Crawford or two-timer Scott Kazmir, has ever reached.

Even Crawford marvels at the phenomenon: "He's reached a level, he's borderline on the Derek Jeter level. I'm happy for him."

How? Why?

"First of all, he's very good," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's charismatic without even realizing it, as most charismatic people are. He appeals to a broad group of people. He's comfortable being that person. And I don't think his name hurts either."

A big part is Longoria's large personality, from how he handles the attention and himself to the way he accommodates interviews and makes times for fans.

"There are just certain things you can see in his swagger that scream, 'You've got to like me,' " teammate Joe Nelson said. "He's not cocky, but he's very confident. He's fan friendly. He can talk to the media, and he's genuine. He's an intelligent speaker. He's just very likeable. … He's one of those guys you migrate to; you really want to be around Longo. There's a presence about him that at a young age is rare."

More impressive, Maddon said, is how mature and comfortable Longoria is in the spotlight.

"People have just been drawn to him and he doesn't shy away from it," he said. "Some people that age brush it aside, they pull down the shade, 'I really don't want this.' He doesn't do that. He embraces it."

Even Jeter has noticed: "It seems like he has a pretty good head on his shoulders. He's handling it just fine."

Sharing a unique name with Eva Longoria, star of Desperate Housewives and assorted ad campaigns, is a boost, at least with casual fans.

Longoria initially didn't like the references but has grown to accept them, as well as the taunting from opposing fans.

"I guess I have to thank her for a lot of the name recognition," he said. "Obviously her name is a lot bigger than mine or else I wouldn't hear about it so often."

More than a few times, especially living in Southern California, the third baseman has shown up where people were expecting her: airplanes, restaurants and a 2007 movie premiere for Charlie Wilson's War.

"The 'n' got cut off on the sheet, so I went in and sat in the seats they directed me to, and the ushers came up and asked me to move because they were expecting her to show up," he said. "I had to pull out my ID and tell them there was a little mishap on the printout."

They've never met, though Eva sent him a bottle of champagne when he made the All-Star team last year (nothing yet this year) and he sent her back a jersey. It's not a stretch to think a savvy company will arrange some type of joint appearance or promotion.

There's also appeal in Lon­goria's back story, agent Paul Cohen suggests, an everyman rise from undrafted high schooler to big-league star that supersedes limitations of playing in a small market.

"He has that Brett Favre quality," Cohen said. "In a sense, it really doesn't matter what city he's in; he's just a guy America will love. … The feedback we get from marketing companies is that people just like him."

They're going to see more of him, as Cohen is working on a deal to put him in national campaigns in the winter for an entertainment company producing baseball videos and "a household product."

Longoria recently turned down a big-money deal to launch a clothing line because he wasn't comfortable with the symbols, though it may be revisited after a re­design, as Cohen cited a "crossover appeal" beyond sports. He has a contract with a New York memorabilia/licensing company that is among the 10 most lucrative in baseball, Cohen said, in addition to his equipment endorsement and baseball card deals.

Silverman called him "the type of player Major League Baseball wants to advertise and promote." Cohen predicts that by the end of 2010, Longoria will be in the top 10 of all major-leaguers in marketing appeal and performance.

Longoria, who has a long-term deal that could keep him a Ray through 2016, takes it all in, acknowledging the team's success as a prime reason for his popularity and just trying to do what he thinks is right.

"I enjoy putting the uniform on every day, and I love going out and playing the game," he said, "and the fans, they seem to like that sort of thing."

Apparently so.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

. 8 p.m. Tuesday . Busch Stadium, St. Louis . TV: Ch. 13

Tampa Bay Rays All-Star Evan Longoria has developed into team's biggest national star 07/11/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 14, 2009 12:38pm]
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